Minrose Gwin’s new novel, “Promise,” was inspired by the April 1936 tornado that ripped through her native Tupelo, Miss., leaving an official death toll of 233.
Years later, she discovered that what her family referred to as “our tornado” took the lives of uncounted African-Americans as well. The number of injured people, and the death toll, was much higher.
She tells the story of that horrific natural disaster through the fictionalized tale of two women, one black and one white. These women struggle to pull their families back together after the storm during the Great Depression and Jim Crow.
“The story of racial violence, racial injustice, is an old story. But unfortunately, and tragically, it continues to make itself new, and not just in the South but throughout the country,” Gwin says in a publisher’s description of the book.
“Promise,” which was published Feb. 27 by William Morrow, has been receiving rave reviews from independent booksellers. It’s been chosen as an Indie Next Pick and SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) OKRA Pick.
Gwin, a 72-year-old retired UNC-Chapel Hill English professor, is also the author of the novel, “The Queen of Palmyra”; a memoir, “Wishing for Snow”; and four scholarly books, including “Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement.”
Gwin will talk about her novel in the coming weeks at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
She spoke about the deeply personal novel from her Chapel Hill home. The story of the 1936 tornado and its aftermath are still relevant today as Puerto Rico continues to recover from Hurricane Irma.
Here are excerpts.
The truth of fiction
Q: Since “Promise” is inspired by a real event, why did you choose to write the story as fiction?
A: I’ve done a lot of work with historical accounts, especially with the Medgar Evers’ book. Sometimes historical accounts of the past can clear too tidy a path. I think that’s the case in the Tupelo story. Sometimes it takes fiction to show the mess and anguish of the historical moment. What it feels like to live, walk and sleep in all that complexity. Sometimes fiction can speak truth to history.
Only the white deaths recorded
Q: You mention that one-third of the town’s population was black. Do you know how many black lives were lost during the 1936 tornado?
A: Nobody really knows. We don’t know how many uncounted people there were. Many in the black community lived on this high ridge in the northwest part of town, which overlooked a small lake called Gum Pond. Many of them were blown into the pond and drowned there. They were pinned under with debris in this pond. They were in the most vulnerable area in town, where the tornado hit.
Race is a factor
Q: Why do minorities not get their fair share of relief after natural disasters? Is the system inherently influenced by race and class? Or lack of political clout and advocates?
A: I think both. I wrote a piece published recently in Salon.com about the relationship between the Tupelo tornado in 1936 and Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico and how our government responded very anemically to the Puerto Rico disaster. The Tupelo tornado occurred in the middle of the Great Depression, when we didn’t have these ways to communicate like we do now.
But President Roosevelt and Congress appropriated funds within 24 hours. There were all these government safeguards and institutions in place to help with this. The Civilian Conservation Corps helped rescue people and bury people. The Tennessee Valley Authority managed to get the power back on within five hours.
Getting to the core of your question, I lost a house in (Hurricane) Katrina, and I saw what kind of really absurd response the government had to Katrina. That was definitely about racism. The Puerto Rico situation has been about racism. Politicians often don’t think they are just playing to their base. When you have politicians that think certain populations are not helpful to them, they don’t help that population when disasters come along. The population of whites and African-Americans in New Orleans didn’t vote for George Bush.
Q: Do you see your book as a part of the Black Lives Matter discussion?
A: I do. One of the things that connects my book to the present day is the question of what bodies count in this world. What people count in this world? My book was written to try to – in some limited way because I’m white – ask why those bodies weren’t counted. What I noticed in Puerto Rico was that they had trouble getting a casualty figure from the hurricane…
My novel is connected to Black Lives Matter and the Me, Too movement. The baby, Promise, for whom the book is named, is a result of rape. Several contemporary issues, including racial injustice, sexual assault and natural disaster, are right at the forefront of our discussions today.
Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and the author of “Sunday Dinner: A Savor the South cookbook” by UNC Press of Chapel Hill. Reach her at email@example.com.
To learn more about Minrose Gwin and the book, go to minrosegwin.com. The following author events are scheduled:
▪ March 6, 6 p.m. Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
▪ March 10, 2 p.m. McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., in Fearrington Village, Pittsboro.
▪ March 13, 7 p.m. Quail Ridge Books, 4209 Lassiter Mill Road, Suite 100, Raleigh in North Hills.